WASHINGTON – A month after they took control of the House of Representatives with their biggest majority since the Truman administration, Republicans are stumbling and finding it difficult to pass some of their priorities.
That could make it hard for the party to unite behind its biggest priority, due for votes next week: cutting federal spending.
Tea party conservatives rebelled at the House GOP leadership’s initial spending cut package as too puny. It’s since been revised to come closer to meeting the right’s demand for $100 billion in spending reductions this fiscal year.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio maintains that he’s unworried. For some time, he’s said he’s not inclined to muscle legislation through the House, as his predecessors often did.
“We’re in a new era,” Boehner said Thursday. “We’re going to allow the House to work its will. Leaders are not going to get what they want every day.”
Analysts offer a different take.
“This is a battle for the soul of the Republican Party,” said Michael Munger, a political science professor at Duke University.
It’s a fight between what he called big-government conservatives – who helped drive up spending during the George W. Bush era – and the small-government tea party activists elected last year, who vowed serious change in how Washington does business.
Of the 241 House Republicans, 87 are freshmen – many elected in November with tea party backing.
“This is a reflection of what happened in the election,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a leading conservative voice. Asked whether House GOP leaders were slow to pick up on the newcomers’ resolve, he said, “Yeah.”
Among the problems roiling the House GOP this week:
• Budget cuts. House Republicans ran last year on a “Pledge to America” that promised to “roll back government spending” to 2008-09 levels, “saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone.” But the fiscal 2011 package that Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled offered only $32 billion in cuts.
A revision Wednesday by Appropriations Committee leaders raised the total cut, but it still met tea party resistance as insufficient. Finally on Thursday, committee leaders offered a $100 billion package of fiscal 2011 reductions.
That plan, said Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., aims to make “deep but manageable cuts in nearly every area of government, leaving no stone unturned and allowing no agency or program to be held sacred.”
• Patriot Act. The House failed Tuesday to extend the act, which expires Feb. 28. The law authorizes tough measures to fight terrorism; opponents say it’s big government trampling civil liberties.
Boehner miscalculated in calling it up for a vote under a rule requiring a two-thirds majority to pass; 26 Republicans joined 122 Democrats to oppose the measure, enough to defeat it. Boehner blamed Democrats for the defeat, saying that in the past they were more supportive. The House is expected to consider the bill again next week under a rule requiring only a majority vote. It’s expected to pass.
• Trade Adjustment Assistance. This is a popular bipartisan program to help workers get aid and training. A long-scheduled vote was postponed Tuesday after tea party conservatives complained that such workers already had programs they could tap for help.
• United Nations funding. A GOP leadership bid to deny funds for the United Nations fell 27 votes short Wednesday because the leaders again overestimated their strength. The measure said the U.S. should get back $179 million it’s overpaid to a U.N. fund. Until the money is returned, the legislation said, the U.S. was to withhold that amount in U.N. payments.
• Former Rep. Christopher Lee. The married western New York Republican, a reliable conservative, resigned Wednesday about three hours after the website Gawker reported that he’d contacted a woman who’d run a Craigslist ad seeking men. He sent her beefcake photos of himself. His resignation didn’t help the GOP caucus.
Boehner dismissed this week’s turmoil as normal growing pains. “We’ve been in over five weeks. We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
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